by K Marie Alto September 01, 2022 12 min read
I like to refer to this as purr-gestion. Get it? Purring with a congestion. Did I just coin a new term for the scientific community? I kind of like it, purr-gestion.
We may all agree that purring is a fascinating thing. However, as far as science goes, right now we don't know how purring works. There are a few theories, but nothing has been confirmed. Isn’t that crazy? We should all write a petition to the scientific cat community requesting research on this. Not kidding.
At any rate, we know it's a behavior they do when they're relaxed, content, and happy (though some will purr while in pain), which is why it's all the more frustrating when that purr starts to sound congested, raspy, or like your poor fur baby has a head cold.
But, what can make a cat's breathing and purring sound congested, and what can you do about it? If your cat has ever sounded purr-gested, no worries, I’ve got you covered here. Raising 4 cats from kittenhood to full grown adults has taught me a thing or two about purr-gestion. Let’s dig in!
As always, if you are looking for more cat behavior guides🤓, make sure not to miss the read more section at the bottom or, search our blog by topic. Spoiler alert, our blog is packed 📚 with pet parent resources.
An "upper respiratory infection" is a disease similar to the common cold in humans. It's actually more of a generic name for a wide range of possible viruses. In fact, cats can even catch COVID! Just like how we people get stuffed up when we have a cold, so too do our fur babies.
You can often tell when your cat has a respiratory infection because of the sounds they make when breathing, but they'll also usually have other symptoms as well. They might sneeze or cough, their eyes and nose might be runny, and your kitty may begin to breathe through their mouth if they have a stuffy nose.
One of the most common viruses that causes cold-like symptoms is the feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), more commonly known as feline herpesvirus. Don’t worry, this virus isn’t contagious to humans (AKA zoonotic), but it is easily spread to other cats. There is a vaccine available for this virus, but it’s likely to just reduce symptoms if your kitty is exposed to the virus.
Yes, but not dramatically so. No one wants to see their fur baby sick, but there's also no easy cure for many respiratory infections. You'll want to take them to the vet at the first available appointment, but you probably don't need to rush them to an emergency vet.
Most viral infections will resolve on their own, but it’s important to watch if your kitty’s symptoms are getting worse or better over time. Some viral infections can lead to secondary bacterial infections and that’s when you absolutely need your vet. They may give you a prescription for antibiotics or other medications, which will help speed up their ability to fight off whatever infection they have.
When I first adopted Sosa she had a little sneeze, which quickly turned into runny swollen eyes. I brought her to the vet and was given a salve to put in her eyes and an l-lysine supplement to add to her food. After a couple of days, I could see she was getting worse, so back to the vet we went. What no one wants to hear is that their new little kitten has pneumonia, but she did, so we added antibiotics to her regime. Thankfully after a few days she began to improve and the whole ordeal was behind us.
All of my kitties were carriers of FVR and had flare ups over the years. Thankfully it was never serious and just needed some time to resolve on its own. I began to recognize early on when symptoms would start and began giving them the l-lysine supplement. It’s worth nothing that there are mixed results with this amino acid. It helps shorten the symptoms in some kitties, but not others. Ask your vet if your cat might benefit from it.
“Most cat colds last about seven to ten days and are generally not serious. If your cat has been suffering with cold symptoms and shows no sign of improvement within 4 days, it may be time to visit the vet.” – West Chester Veterinary Medical Center.
You can’t visually tell if a cold is being caused by a virus versus a bacteria or fungus, so it’s always a good idea to chat with your vet. And if your kitty isn’t eating or drinking, or is hiding, definitely make an appointment.
Obesity is, unfortunately, a common problem with cats. Some are very food motivated and will do anything they can to chow down on anything they find, including plenty of human foods that just aren't very good for them. Likewise, a lot of bargain-bin cat foods just aren't good from a nutritional standpoint – many are packed full of carbs instead of the protein your kitty needs.
And while we can all agree on how adorable chonky cats look, obese cats have a bit too much body pressing in on their lungs, and it can make it harder to breathe. Likewise, extra fat can push on and obstruct the airways and cause apnea. Fat-related issues like diabetes, heart issues, and other problems can also cause issues with breathing.
Yes, but usually more on a long-term scale. You can't rush your cat to the emergency vet for liposuction. Weight gain occurs over time and so too will weight loss. Listen to your vet at the annual appointments to see if your kitty is heading on a path to obesity and be sure to take action. At their annual appointment, your vet will evaluate your kitty’s health to see if they have other conditions that might lead to obesity (like thyroid problems), but otherwise, you will mostly need to manage their diet and encourage them to exercise to help them lose that weight. There's no shortcut, and it's a long process, but anything for our felines, right?
If you’ve read some of my older posts, you may remember that my angel Moo reached a hefty 21 pounds. I thought his snoring was the cutest thing ever! He ended up developing diabetes, so the snoring was minor in comparison. The fact is though, cats shouldn’t make noise when they breath, so if your adorable pudgy kitty otherwise seems fine, but is snoring while sleeping, talk to your vet about a weight loss plan. Trust me, it’s going to stave off other health issues down the road.
“Asthma is a disease of the lower airways of the lungs that affects between 1 and 5% of cats.” – Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Unlike in humans that have many triggers for asthmatic episodes, it’s generally agreed that an allergic reaction is the cause in cats. It manifests as an infection-like response deep in their airways, as part of an out-of-control immune system response that causes inflammation in the airways.
If your fur baby crouches down and stretches their head and neck forward – a way to open up the airways for better breathing – it might look like they're about to hock up a hairball. More likely, though, they're just trying to breathe more easily while their lungs are congested.
Sometimes. Asthma can range from mildly inconvenient to very severe. The most severe cases can even be life-threatening if your poor fur baby isn't able to get enough oxygen to keep sustaining themselves. This is, thankfully, quite rare.
Most of the time, asthma is unpleasant for both you and your fur baby. It can, however, be mitigated, which I'll go into in at the bottom of this article. It's also sadly true that asthma does not have a cure and tends to slowly get worse over time; if your cat has a mild case when they're young, it may become worse as they get older.
It's also important to mention that there are quite a few other conditions that look like asthma, so you'll still want to take your fur baby to the vet to rule them out.
When you take your cat to the vet, they may also give you corticosteroids and bronchodilators. Corticosteroids are medications that can suppress the immune response and reduce inflammation that causes an asthma attack, and bronchodilators are medications that cause the airways to open, both of which make it easier for your fur baby to breathe while the asthma attack subsides.
I know what you might be thinking: Are corticosteroids safe for cats? According to VCA Animal Hospitals:
“For decades, this class of drugs has benefited humans and animals. They are a vital part of the treatment protocol for many life-threatening diseases. Their benefits far outweigh any risks in the majority of cases. When used properly, very few side effects occur”
While I haven’t personally had experience using inhaled steroids, my kitties have taken oral steroids for digestive issues – and unfortunately long-term use does come with some serious potential consequences. VCA Animal Hospitals does say there are less side effects of inhaled steroid treatment that their oral counterpart. But, just like with any other medication, corticosteroids will come with their own benefits and risks, so talk with your veterinarian.
Persians, Himalayans, and some exotic shorthairs are breeds that have smushed faces. The technical term for them is "brachycephalic," and it's characterized by a shortened skull (from front to back) resulting in the nose being essentially compressed into the skull. Brachycephaly is caused by a gene defect, and the cat breeds mentioned above are bred to pass along this gene.
As the term ‘gene defect’ implies, this isn't really healthy for these animals. It can cause a range of breathing problems, collectively known as Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome. There are a variety of different specific causes, but they're all related to the anatomy of the cat.
Another physical issue is the growth of nasal polyps. These nodules are benign but can cause airway blockages leading to noisy breathing. It can sometimes require sedation to identify the polyps, so your vet is likely to treat the symptoms as an upper respiratory infection (as this is much more common) and if it doesn’t get better explore further.
Only if it's causing problems. Some cats live perfectly fine lives making a little noise when they breathe but are otherwise fine. Others develop problems with their breathing over time, which gradually get worse. You'll need to take your fur baby to the vet for an examination.
There are generally three options. The first is "wait and see"; if the noise is not leading to adverse health issues, then there is nothing to worry about. If it is causing an issue, you may need to begin a medication to reduce swelling in the airways. The third is surgical correction, to remove anything that obstructs their airway. This is, obviously, a last resort but may be necessary if your feline friend is suffering.
When fluid builds up in the lungs, it's called pulmonary edema. When it builds up around the lungs, preventing them from fully expanding, it's called a pleural effusion. In both cases, this build-up of fluid is generally caused by some ailment and inhibits breathing.
Your fur baby may also have other symptoms that indicate one of these causes. These can include mouth-breathing, a dry cough, wheezing, lethargy, loss of appetite, and abdominal swelling.
Yes, very much so. Fluid build-up has a lot of possible causes, but almost all of them are dangerous and need immediate medical attention to handle appropriately. You'll want to take your fur baby to the vet as soon as possible.
My angel kitty Beany had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the most common type of heart disease in cats. If you’re interested you can read about her first trip to the veterinary cardiologist. As her disease progressed, her cardiologist asked me to keep an eye on her breathing rate as changes can indicate fluid build up in and around her lungs. In her final days she began to cough, and I knew that was a sign.
Check out the video below to see how my Beany kitty looked and sounded when she coughed. WARNING: This video may be disturbing to some viewers.
Purr trivia: Did you know that purring is a behavior only possible in cats (and two small cat-like creatures from Africa, genets)? Did you also know that also, lions and tigers, the big cats that roar, can't purr?!? All cats are divided into either cats that can roar or cats that can purr. I bet you're glad our adorable housecats are the purring variety, right?
One of the worst causes of congested-sounded breathing in your cat is they inhaled something, and it's caught in their throat, partially obstructing their ability to breathe.
For obvious reasons, this is pretty distressing! Cats are curious critters, and they like exploring and sniffing at things, and sometimes that backfires. Your feline friend will likely be acting somewhat distressed, breathing hard, and having a hard time relaxing. You would too if you got something stuck in your airways!
Luckily, this is one of the least common causes of congested-sounding breathing. It's worth keeping in the back of your mind in case it happens, but there are other causes that are much more likely.
Yes, absolutely! Depending on the location the medical name for this condition is "tracheal foreign body," or “respiratory foreign body” and it's something that needs to be resolved as soon as possible. Your furry friend most likely isn't going to be able to get it out on their own, and if it's left unaddressed, it can cause all kinds of problems. Irritation and swelling can make it even harder to breathe, and it's undoubtedly painful.
“As they can cause potential complications ranging from mild shortness of breath to severe respiratory tract obstruction and laceration, such foreign bodies need to be removed immediately and effectively because tracheal foreign bodies can be life-threatening (Zambelli 2006)” - CZECH Academy of Agricultural Sciences
If you suspect your cat inhaled something that is causing them problems, you'll need to take them to the vet as soon as possible. Ideally, it will be a simple matter to remove whatever object they inhaled, but in more extreme cases, they may even need surgery to remove it or repair any damage it did.
Difficulty breathing is always a bad thing; it's just a matter of how bad and how immediate the issue may be. If it's a regular seasonal problem, you can generally take steps to minimize the issue. If it's a sudden problem, a trip to the vet is likely a good idea. If it's extremely sudden and your cat shows other signs of distress or illness, you'll be better served with a trip to the emergency vet.
Once you find out the cause, you can then determine what options are available for treatment. Something as simple as a humidifier in the dry colder months can help a kitty with respiratory issues. I set one up for our Sosa kitty every winter to help her with congestion. It’s also great for kitties with asthma.
If the cause is an allergy or sensitivity issue, some simple lifestyle changes can make a difference. Switch to a dust free litter and kick those synthetic room fresheners and cleaning supplies to the curb and opt for more natural plant-based options. Consider getting a robot vacuum that can run on a schedule to keep dust and allergens down. Room air purifiers are also a great option and us humans benefit from them too!
If your kitty has an infection, meds are a must. Life can get hectic, so it never hurts to jot down the date and time you give each dose so you don’t accidentally miss one.
Has your kitty had another cause for their congested breathing that you believe should be listed? If so, be sure to leave a comment down below! I want to keep this list as comprehensive as possible and would love to hear your input!
Read More Cat Behavior Guides
One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA (or anywhere but in China), 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!
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K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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